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How conspiracy theories like QAnon spilled into the mainstream

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If you’re not extremely online, you may have been confused three weeks ago when President Trump was asked to condemn a group called the Proud Boys at the first presidential debate.

As my colleague Jane Coaston has explained, the Proud Boys are a hodgepodge of men’s right’s groups and pro-Trump street-fighting clubs that emerged in 2016 as a counterweight to antifa and other lefty protesters. But for most people who don’t follow politics all that closely, the debate was likely the first time hearing anything about them.

It was, for that reason, one of those strange moments in which the weird world of the online berserk spilled into the political mainstream. Indeed, given all the coverage the Proud Boys received after the debate, it may not be accurate to call them “fringe” any longer.

Which is why I reached out to Andrew Marantz, a writer at the New Yorker who spent years immersed in the world of online extremists. In his 2019 book, Antisocial, Marantz interviewed conspiracy theorists, alt-right trolls, and various media gate crashers who have flooded the virtual space and, in his words, “hijacked the American conversation.” The book is a fascinating guide through the digital wilderness, and it’s even more relevant now that several US intelligence agencies have warned of increased election-related threats from domestic extremist groups.

Marantz and I discussed how online extremism has evolved since his book was released, if he thinks the threat is being overstated, and the role of the tech companies in perpetuating all these problems. I also asked him if we just have to accept that American politics in the years to come is going to look increasingly like the darkest corners of the web.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

The phrase “online extremism” is fuzzy. I’d like to know how you define it.

Andrew Marantz

You’re right, and a lot depends on how we define it. You could define it so narrowly that it’s just a handful of people, most of whom have already been banned from most of the social networks. In that case, it’s not that big a problem.

You can also define online extremism as Donald Trump getting on the internet and telling people they don’t need to worry about getting coronavirus, that it’ll actually make them feel awesome and they’ll get to take a lot of steroids, so they shouldn’t wear their masks. I’d consider that not just loony but extremist and dangerous.

So a lot depends on where you set your limits. And despite the subtitle of my book, I’ve never really loved the word “extremist.” I just couldn’t think of a good substitute. I don’t like it because it implies “fringe” or “marginal” when honestly some of the most extreme opinions come from some of the most powerful mainstream voices in our society.

The thing I don’t want people to take away from my book is that we’re just talking about a small group of people who I tracked closely because it worked for the kind of narrative reporting I like to do, and that once they’ve been contained we’re all good. It’s the whole online ecosystem that props them up [that’s the problem].

Sean Illing

Conversations about online extremism imply that it’s basically a right-wing problem, and that seems mostly true, but is it a little misleading?

Andrew Marantz

If by right-wing you mean people who read Edmund Burke and care a lot about curtailing the overreach of the federal government, then no. There’s nothing intrinsically harmful or extremist about that. But if by right-wing or conservative we mean people who don’t think climate change is real, who don’t think epidemiology is real, and who don’t like people who aren’t white, then yeah, that’s harmful and extreme and it’s the kind of stuff that thrives online.

Sean Illing

Are you surprised at how pervasive and influential QAnon has become? Did you see this coming?

Andrew Marantz

Yes and no. I think it would be professional malpractice at this point for me to ever be surprised at how bad and stupid American politics can be, but when I was writing in my book, for example, about Pizzagate, there was this metastasizing version of it that people were starting to call QAnon. If you had pinned me down and asked me to predict whether there would be QAnon members of Congress in the next congressional cycle, I probably would have said that’s a little nuts, but here we are.

Sean Illing

It’s so tempting to dismiss something like QAnon, but you can’t do that when it’s spilling into the real world —

Andrew Marantz

Nope, not when QAnon members are winning congressional races. You can’t get much more mainstream than that.

Part of the issue is we have this dual intuition with this stuff where we say, on the one hand, the actual content in question is so stupid that it’s almost beneath contempt, and so the brain just wants to ignore it because that’s what you do with things that are incomprehensibly stupid. But there’s another set of intuitions that says it doesn’t matter how dumb something is; if it has actual power in the world, we have to deal with it.

It’s the same thing with climate denial. It’s also unspeakably stupid and dangerous to not believe in climate change, but we’ve known for a long time that that view has enough political power in the world that we can’t afford to ignore it. But it’s a hard line to walk. I kept colliding with this when I was reporting on all this stuff. People would say, “You can’t spend all day worrying about what weirdo, huckster, loser misogynists on the internet are doing because those people are contemptible.” And my response was always, “Yes, that’s true, but they’re also a model for how the worst things in our society can take over.”

Sean Illing

Does the reality of the internet make all of this a basically intractable problem?

Andrew Marantz

It’s certainly a really, really difficult problem. I guess we won’t know whether it’s truly intractable until the simulation ends and we see how it all unfolded. But I keep going back to the climate denialism. We have these big systemic failures like the climate crisis or the information crisis and we can’t just throw our hands up and we also can’t expect it to work itself out. All we can really do is try to unbuild the system we’ve built and replace it with a new one.

Sean Illing

I agree, but I really do wonder if this is just what politics is going to look like moving forward. Both of us think that societies are shaped by the tools they use to communicate, and since the internet is now the dominant form of communication and this is the kind of shit that flourishes there, shouldn’t we expect this to be the new normal?

Andrew Marantz

It’s an interesting point, and to some extent it’s true, but I also think that’s why we have to change how this stuff works. One of the frames that I keep coming back to in the book is the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty’s idea that to change how we talk is to change who we are. I think that is actually really, deeply true. And I think everyone can see that the way we talk to each right now is fundamentally broken.

So, yeah, I think you’re right that we’re in for a tough slog, but again, these things are not static. These tech companies like Facebook and Twitter and Google are some of the newest, fastest-growing entrances to global corporate behemoth status that we’ve ever seen. It’s not like we’ve been doing things this way for 100 years. These things were barely thinkable 15 years ago. Which is to say, things can change. We can change. And we’re figuring out how best to change them.

Sean Illing

You mentioned the tech companies and you just published a big New Yorker piece about Facebook. Before I ask you what they can or should do, let me ask: Do you think they’re actively complicit in this problem?

Andrew Marantz

When you say actively complicit, I think the image that that conjures up is of evil, villainous men twisting their mustaches in a Bond villain cave somewhere. I don’t think it’s that, but I do think my reporting in that piece and also in the book showed that the ideology that has become the house ideology at a lot of these companies is blinding and misleading. Right after the phrase “online extremists” in the subtitle of my book comes the phrase “techno-utopians.”

It’s not very sexy to talk about an obscure ideology that most people have never heard of on the cover of a trade book, but the reason I wanted to do it is I think the ideology is really the fundamental problem. Of course profit is a problem. Of course the structure of late capitalism is a problem. Of course delivering maximum shareholder value is a problem. That’s kind of obvious to most people.

But I think what may be less obvious is that it’s not purely people looking at a spreadsheet and going, “Okay, we can make 1 percent more profit if we club more baby seals over the head,” or whatever. I think it’s that these people really believe themselves to be harbingers of good in the world. The more cognitive dissonance that shows up between your belief in yourself as an agent for positive change and the countervailing evidence that you’re not, the more that cognitive dissonance starts to make you a worse and worse decision-maker.

So let’s take a specific case: I think that the corporate logic of a company like Facebook means that they have to arrive at a certain conclusion when it comes to a strongman like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro or Rodrigo Duterte. Now, this is speculation, so I don’t know what’s in anybody’s heart, but my educated guess based on reporting is that, although they might go through a process of trying to decide what to do when someone like Trump or Duterte breaks the rules of their platform, deep down they know that the logic of their business requires that they keep that person on the platform.

Sean Illing

Facebook will say they allow someone like Trump to spew dangerous nonsense because it’s inherently “newsworthy,” which is exactly what the mainstream media does, so in that sense they’re not doing anything different from CNN or Fox News or whatever.

Andrew Marantz

I agree with the first half of that. I think it’s a very similar trap that the mainstream finds itself in. If we lived in a world where the national approval rating for social media were flipped with the national approval rating of the mainstream media, then maybe I would have written a book that’s critical of the mainstream media. In other words, if I thought people were aware of the problem of social media to the extent that they’re aware of the inherent problems with TV or newspaper media, then I’d be more interested in highlighting that problem.

But I really think that, if anything, we’re still underrating the problem of social media and probably overrating the problem of mainstream media. And here’s the biggest difference: There are people at any given news network who you can appeal to to try to have them make a different set of decisions. So there was a whole movement to get someone like Jeff Zucker [president of CNN] to stop covering Trump’s rallies wall to wall in 2016. It was good for ratings but bad for democracy. The pressure campaign worked.

There are obviously other problems with CNN, but there was at least a human being who could make the change, whereas what the tech platforms will tell you is that we don’t have any human beings sitting in that chair by design. We have outsourced all of those decisions to algorithms, and that is our attempt to make a better machine. But it’s not working.

Sean Illing

A contrarian take on this, and I know people won’t like it, is to say, “Look, this is what a truly free and open information space looks like. The media gatekeeping age is dead. And these social media platforms are a cultural mirror, whether we like the reflection or not, so is it really reasonable to ask them to clean up a mess they didn’t create but have certainly amplified?”

Andrew Marantz

Yeah, the platforms will talk about themselves as a mirror, or they’ll say we’re the tail and society is the dog. If they are a mirror, they’re a funhouse mirror. They are not a photorealistic depiction. You know that because as soon as you introduce any algorithmic distortion into the picture, the reflection gets altered. As soon as it’s not just a chronological feed of everything that every person in the world said, you are introducing distortion.

Part of the problem is that we see this stuff, we see what’s trending, and we think that’s just an objective heat map of the American conversation right now, when in fact it’s proprietary, it’s microtargeted, it’s individually tailored, it’s based on some secret sauce that nobody’s allowed to know.

The other part of the problem is that we somehow are aware of the fallacy of blaming the consumer in every other industry except for this one. So if you talk to a casino company and they say, “Well, what would you have us do? We’re just honestly reflecting the preferences of the consumer,” I think everybody would know that’s not true because they’re pumping the casino full of oxygen, and they’re blotting out all of the windows, and they’re giving people free drinks, and they’re playing to everybody’s worst, most addictive behaviors. So people are still pulling the levers on the slot machines, but they’re being manipulated. But for some reason, we have a harder time connecting the dots when it comes to speech or ideas or media.

Sean Illing

We all agree that these platforms are the main vectors for spreading malicious content. What are the most practical steps these companies can take to at least mitigate the problem?

Andrew Marantz

Well, the steps the companies can take would be much more powerful and have a much wider multiplier effect. Leaving it up to individual consumer choice isn’t going to get us where we need to go. One thing that the government can do would be to look very seriously, as they already are, at antitrust solutions, at breaking up companies when they’re too big.

Another thing that the companies could do voluntarily, although I’m not holding my breath, would be to really look at the roots of their algorithms and imagine what it would look like if they did not prize emotional manipulation above all else. On some basic level, all of these platforms are built on what social scientists call “activating emotions.” It’s an emotion that makes you take a measurable behavior that the platform can quantify and monetize. As long as that is the fundamental currency of virality on the internet, these things will always be subject to manipulation. They will always be able to be gamed in either positive or destructive ways.


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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Open Sourced logo

Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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